'We're going to do it or die trying:' Harbaugh on beating Buckeyes and winning the Big Ten
INDIANAPOLIS — Jim Harbaugh went mountain climbing with his wife Sarah and daughter Addison earlier this summer.
As they climbed about 15,000 steps and approached the top, Addison made a comment that stuck with the Michigan football coach.
“She goes, 'We've got to apex that. We've got to get to the top,' ” Harbaugh said Thursday at Big Ten media days at Lucas Oil Stadium.
He said he answered, “You're darn right we do. We've got to get there. We've got to apex this."
Harbaugh told the story because the analogy was obvious. As Michigan's coach, he hasn't come close to taking the Wolverines to the top.
“She's got that gene in her, and I was darn glad to see it," Harbaugh said. "I've got that. We've talked about it here already (with Michigan's players). We've got that gene. We've got to get to the top.”
Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor seven years ago as a returning hero. After successful stints with Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers, the former Wolverine quarterback was hired to restore Michigan to college glory. His battles with Urban Meyer were supposed to reignite the rivalry with Ohio State.
Harbaugh's tenure with Michigan hasn't been disastrous. His record is 47-18. But the marquee wins have been scarce. He hasn't beaten Ohio State. Michigan hasn't even gotten to the Big Ten championship game.
Harbaugh's status was uncertain last year during an ugly 2-4 season until he signed a contract extension that included a pay cut. He has revamped his coaching staff, making it younger.
“I'm enthusiastic and excited as I always am — even more — to have at it,” he said. “To win the championship. To beat Ohio. (To have success in) our rivalry with Michigan State. That's what we want to do. And we're going to do it or die trying.”
There's already much speculation that this is a make-or-break year for Harbaugh, contract extension or not.
Michigan football players feel Jim Harbaugh's hot seat
Michigan's players feel the urgency, particularly about the rivalry with Ohio State.
“Every day,” senior linebacker Josh Ross said. “That's what it's about. It's about beating them every single day. To do that, we've got to stack the days, and that's one thing that's been a focus for our program, for the players, for the coaches. Make the best of every day.”
Ohio State routed Michigan in 2018 and '19. Last year's game was canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak among the Wolverines.
“That week was terrible,” said Ross, who estimated that Michigan would have been without about 50 players because of COVID or injuries.
Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, who is regarded as Michigan's top defensive player, almost shuddered when recalling how decimated the Wolverines were before the game's cancellation.
"I don't know who was going to walk out there against Ohio State if we played them last year," he said. "With injuries and COVID, we were depleted."
That cancellation ended Michigan's season, mercifully so. Ross said the team endured "a lot of chaos.”
“With us losing, it wasn't the best environment,” Ross said. “But it's a new opportunity. It's a new year, new everything. Let's go attack it like we have been attacking it — winter, spring, summer.”
Running back Hassan Haskins agreed that there is a different vibe this year.
"The energy in the whole entire building from everyone is greatly enhanced," he said. "I can feel it."
A key to improvement will be at quarterback. Michigan struggled last year. Harbaugh said Cade McNamara, a junior who started one game in 2020, has separated from the pack this year.
"You talk about taking the reins and leadership, that's something that he has done," Harbaugh said. "He has been that guy throughout the entire spring and the training cycle in the summer, by example, and also pulling other guys along with him. He's a fiery competitor. He's got that gene — that he must win, must give it his best at all times."
Michigan is not projected as a top contender in the Big Ten, but the Wolverines seem confident that better days are ahead, particularly on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Michigan hasn't beaten Ohio State since 2011.
"We've been working every day," Haskins said. "We prepare for every game, but that game is on top of my list. I feel this year we've got to change something. That game, it's going to be upsetting a lot of Ohio fans. We're going to see what happens this year."
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